Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, has been in the news a bit lately. If this is the first you’ve ever heard about it, it’s important to realize that it’s not a previously unknown ailment that has taken the world by surprise. Knowledge of this emerging disease dates back to 2012, if not earlier. But what is MERS, and why should we care, especially if we don’t live in or plan to visit the Middle East?

MERS is a virus that causes coughing, fever, and sometimes a fatal, pneumonia-like complication that accounts for its near one-out-of-three fatality rate. MERS is a coronavirus from the same family as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). If you remember the SARS scare, this virus killed about 800 people worldwide after first appearing in China in 2002. Since the discovery of MERS, there have been 572 cases of it in 15 countries, with a death rate of 30 percent. When compared to SARS with its 9- to 12-percent mortality rate, MERS is beginning to receive global attention.

MERS has been linked to camel handlers in the Middle East, who are believed to have contracted the disease while assisting with camel births. It makes sense that the annual uptick in MERS cases comes in the springtime, as this also happens to be when camels birth their calves.

On March 13, the World Health Organization held the second emergency meeting in its history to discuss the MERS Coronavirus. They determined that a vaccine must be in place by October 1st.

So far, two cases of MERS have been identified in the United States.

One of these, a man who traveled from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, through London, and on to Chicago, reportedly transmitted the disease to a business associate after a 40-minute face-to-face meeting. This second man is said to have only exhibited cold-like symptoms and is no longer sick.

So, what can we do to protect ourselves and our families?

Treat this as an opportunity to renew your good health habits, and make sure your kids and family members are using their good habits, too. All the simple things that help during cold and flu season will help to prevent the spread of any virus, MERS included.

– Wash your hands often with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

– Avoid close contact with travelers who are displaying any cold or flu symptoms.

– Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth after touching things in public (doorknobs, shopping cart handles, elevator buttons, etc.)

– Wear a mask if your immune system is already compromised by any health issues.